Space projects, poverty and pride

The Indian satellite Chandrayaan-1 working with the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has found more evidence of water ice on the moon. Chandrayaan-1 also released a probe which impacted with the lunar surface making Indian a feat only previously acheived by the USA, Russia, European Space Agency and Japan. Chandrayaan-1 has been terminated after an irrecoverable failure ending the mission a year earlier than planned. The mission cost an estimated 80 million USD and has been hailed as a great leap forward for the Indian nation.

Questions are being asked though as to, whether a country that is unable to provide clean water for a large part of it’s population, should spend millions of dollars looking for water on the moon (or developing nuclear weapons). Similar questions have been raised regarding the Nigeria space program. Should countries that face such large socio-environmental challenges redirect resources to these projects?

Let us look at another project NigeriaSat-1. This is a disaster relief sat that cost a mere £10 M. It is part of an international constellation providing earth observation data for environmental monitoring and disaster management.  Personally, I think that this might be £10 M well spent. The satellite is operated from Lagos and will hopefully boost science and engineering in Nigeria whilst providing crucial services for the nation. It is a modest expenditure, especially when compared with the £228 M NigComSat which failed.

The Indian Space program is well regarded internationally. The program has produced missions that monitor the annual monsoon and provide environmental monitoring. Given India’s reliance on the monsoon and the risk of natural disasters these programs can provide valuable input to policy making, planning and disaster management. High technology programs are assumed to provide a trickle-down effect inspiring future generations of scientists, spinning-off technologies and boosting education. These are arguments I generally buy into.

The Disaster Monitoring Constellation, of which NigeriaSat-1 is a part, is a brilliant concept. It distributes costs and risk over several nations, is a good value for money and uses proven technologies. But a moon mission? It sounds to me like a glory project: the buying of political favour/votes, boosting national confidence, etc. Before we point fingers, and at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I feel the same way about the International Space Station (bloody expensive and scientifically very questionable).

Ultimately, it is for the Indian people to decide if Chandrayaan-1 was worth the investment. I am not a moral philosopher, so I’ll leave the moral questions to those better able to make the arguments. But I will finish with one final point: there is a reason why scientists do not rule the World. We tend to have other foci and sometimes over estimate the importance of our goals. Writing a blank check to scientists is like letting a cleptomaniac run the country (and we have all seen how that can end).

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